Researchers at Cornell University hope to use 3D printers to create replacement human ears that are more lifelike than current methods for children born with auricular deformaties. Biological engineers have used a 3D printer to create a mold that is injected with a special collagen gel that’s full of cow cells that grow to produce cartilage and form a scaffolding.
After several weeks, cartilage grows to replace the collagen and at the three month mark, a flexible and workable outer ear is completed. This study, published by PlosOne, is a proof of concept and has shown that the principle works before moving to using human collagen cells.
The first part of the process is to scan the child’s head with a 3D camera to create a 3D computer model of the existing ear to match. From this 3D model stored as an .stl file it is sent to a FDM 2000 Stratasys 3D printer and printed out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic.
After several post-processing clean up procedures the mold is ready for injection of collagen gel. But the team has progressed to actually using the cells in the collagen gel as the 3D printer’s “ink”. The printer layers the gel in the shape of the ear from the 3D model, without the need to print out a mold using plastic.
The project is continuing with research into moving to using the patient’s own cells in the 3D printing process. Researchers are confident that 3D printing is ideally suited to growing cartilage as it does not need a blood supply while it is grown.
Perhaps a 3D printed nose will be the next must-have plastic surgery procedure in Hollywood.